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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Aura of an Opera Star

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Renée Fleming is one of the most glamorous and renowned opera stars in the world. Now at the pinnacle of her spectacularly successful career, her public image highlights a generation of performers who are evolving from the traditional role of opera singer into the more contemporary view of "singing actress."

Yet, in one of the most difficult of the vocal arts, challenging the entire range of the human voice, personality alone can't cut it. The major operatic roles require technical proficiency unmatched by any other singing profession.

In a recent phone interview, Fleming speaks jokingly of "post-traumatic stress syndrome" after singing complete acts from three operas in three different languages in costumes designed especially for her at the gala opening of the 2008-09 Metropolitan Opera season, an event telecast throughout the world and presented on a huge screen in Times Square before a seated audience-an unprecedented honor for any singer.

"The historic pressure of being the first woman to anchor opening night in that way was a great responsibility-usually it goes to tenors," she says. She was surprised to learn that the final selection in German, from the little known Capriccio, was the crowd's favorite, although the French Manon highlighted a more seductive aspect of her vocal charm.

Speaking of the changed expectations for opera singers, she says, "Our generation has changed the requirements for operatic performance. Now there is more pressure to give a total performance, and that has changed dramatically even since I started. You act the part, look like the part, act well-if you have to sing on the floor, you do that, or [sing while] falling down the stairs."

Asked about her own popularity, Fleming replies, "I am the last person to ask why someone becomes popular, but I know my own listening tastes have changed. If a voice does not do something to me-if there is no pathos or a thrill or sweetness-then I lose interest. We have many fine singers today, though, especially in the Mozart or Baroque category. The lighter repertoire is well covered."

About the oft-repeated view that her voice is so compellingly easy on the ears, with no forced passages or screamed high notes: "I started singing rather late and had very good vocal instruction. My career did not start until I was in my late 20s,so I had plenty of time to develop. It was a real advantage because I feel more technically solid and you need that to have longevity, and you need it when you are singing under pressure-when your career is moving at a fast clip and you are learning new music. So if people are screaming high notes it's because they don't know how else to do it."

After a recent performance of Massenet's opera Thaïs, an admirer was overheard to say, "Just listening to her voice makes you want to cry." It's difficult not to flatter someone as gifted and self-aware as Renée Fleming, but even at the height of her profession, the beauty of her vocal gifts are only an outreach from a more interior source that determines the mystery and aura of her ongoing appeal.

She credits her long friendship since her student days at Aspen with conductor Andréas Delfs as the source of herinterest in the music of Richard Strauss, which she will perform with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. on April 30 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.